by Laura Koennecke
When I was eleven, we lost my brother Kurt and almost every material thing in a house fire. It was a terrible time for my family that was softened by the kindness and generosity of the people who came together to help us. It was an overwhelming and foggy time, to say the least, but there are a few memories that stick out.
There was all the food being delivered daily. That was the year we had lasagna for Thanksgiving. There was Christmas at my aunt and uncle’s and the special gifts they picked out for us – including the stuffed bear for Sheryl that needed an x-ray at my uncle’s vet office for some reason.
And there were the socks. A boy from my bus route, a year or two older than me, showed up at my Grandpa’s doorway with a huge department store bag filled with socks. Brand new, never-been-worn socks in all sizes and colors. To this day, the thoughtfulness of this gift stays with me.
A few years later, this same boy’s father ended his own life. I cried for him, and I wanted to somehow return the kindness that he had shown my family. So I baked him some chocolate chip cookies. I put them on a plate, wrapped them in aluminum foil and set them on the table in the front hall. All that was left was for me to knock on his door and hand them to him.
They sat on that table for at least a week. I’m not sure what even happened to them. But I know I didn’t bring them to him. I didn’t know how to face that much pain, and I didn’t know if he wanted anyone to know what had happened.
I don’t know what led up to his father’s decision, but I do know that people didn’t talk about mental health much thirty years ago, at least not in front of kids. Thankfully that is changing, but there is still a dearth of information about it.
So why talk about this on a children’s literature site? Because books are powerful. Because they have the power to help heal, to start a dialogue, to let a child know that he or she is not alone, to provide an escape.
Because teachers and librarians can include books that deal with mental health on their shelves.
If you look for books addressing issues such as depression, suicide and addiction, there are plenty for teens. The School Library Journal has an excellent article by Erin E. Moulton about bibliotherapy and an extensive list of books by subject area.
But according to the Educational Research Newsletter, “School personnel need to be aware that many learning disabled children appear to experience depression during the elementary years.”
Obviously, this is important for parents to know too.
So where are the books for younger kids? That’s not a rhetorical question. I’m curious. And I’m not talking about “how to” books; I’m talking about books with nuanced characters that young readers and listeners can relate to.
And, are we as parents, teachers and counselors misreading the signs of mental health issues? According to the Journal of Learning Disabilities, “The presence of depression in school-age children may not be adequately recognized by teachers. Teachers may be misdiagnosing depressed children as having a specific learning problem.”
Saying that teachers are misdiagnosing is a bit misleading as they aren’t doctors, but they are often the first people to see signs that a child is struggling.
The Educational Research Newsletter also notes that “Researchers do not agree on which is the primary condition; does being learning disabled lead to depression or are learning problems a symptom of depression?”
There is so much to learn and so much more research that will be done, but ultimately we need to be aware that mental illness can affect anyone, even young children – either as someone suffering from it personally or someone trying to understand what a parent or sibling is experiencing.
So where do we go from here? I guess we keep talking about it, sharing our stories and reading about it. We talk to our children’s doctors. And we stop being afraid to knock on the door and deliver the cookies.
Do you know of a children’s book that addresses mental illness? Let us know in the comments.
About Laura Koennecke
Laura Koennecke has been writing and editing for about 15 years. She first started contributing to Aunt Sheryl’s Book Nook in November of 2015 with her essay titled, Another Christmas Story. One of her biggest joys is reading to her kids.
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